Last night I listened to a programme on the BBC World Service entitled 'Thinking Streets'. The focus was on the concept of 'shared spaces', first coined by Hans Monderman in the 60s when he implemented the idea in Drachten, Netherlands. In essence, 'shared spaces' are traffic calming areas where the kerbs, traffic lights, sign posts and road markings are removed in order that all road users (pedestrians, cyclists, drivers etc.) have an equal right to use the road and are encouraged to consider one another's safety. This creates a shared sense of responsibility and has been proven to lower road accidents. It is in direct opposition to what town planners usually do when faced with a dangerous road layout - they normally pile on the signs and barriers. An interesting comment was made on the programme: Ben Hamilton-Bailie (a UK town planner advocating 'shared space') asked what the sign below means.
According to the DVLA this means 'Warning: Cattle' but if you are in the country side then you can see, hear and smell the cattle and so this sign is simply demeaning to road users' intelligence. He believes that entrusting safety to the road users will result in fewer accidents - this whole process can seem counter-intuitive but really it is an exercise in trusting common sense.
The main issue with this concept is how the blind and visually impaired road users can safely use the scheme. A variety of road surfaces are used, such as ridges, bumps etc. to indicate where they can and cannot cross but there are still many groups up in arms about this seemingly backwards step in road safety. I will not go into too much detail but you can read about the evolution of shared space here and about the implementation of the scheme in Bohmte, Germany here. The video below is a BBC London article on shared space in London's Exhibition Road, a busy student and tourist area, and voices some concerns of the blind and visibly impaired.
And here is what Exhibition Road in Kensington looks like now:
You are probably wondering what this has to do with libraries. Well, it is tenuous I admit but I felt that 'shared space' is something that libraries are and should be considering when taking their library spaces forward. In various talks I have been to on library design, the focus has been on moveable furniture and being 'future-ready'. We do not know what our users will want to do with the space in libraries in 10, 20 years so we should make our spaces as welcome and adaptable as possible.
I think that the 'shared spaces' concept with its trust in people's common sense and encouragement for them to be responsible for their own actions can be applied in the library sector too. Libraries are guilty of patronising and irritating users with a plethora of signs and fines - with these we are really shooting ourselves in the foot. If we are to encourage users to stay with us and enjoy using our amenities then we shouldn't make it so difficult for them - we need to make them feel welcome and appreciate that they are intelligent human beings. Instead of trying to guess what the future holds or shoe-horning our community into spaces designed for what we think they want, perhaps we should offer open space available for the community to make its mark on as it sees fit. This more organic approach to space may take some time to catch on and not develop as expected but it will suit the community better.
This may well be old hat to many of you, but it is something that suddenly clicked for me as I drifted off last night. It ties in well with my group's 613 project, which is focused on planning a Green Space for Fayetteville Free Library. While researching reading gardens for the literature review I was surprised by how out of touch the architects and even librarians could be with the community needs. The community meetings held to canvas ideas for the gardens revealed that the community's knowledge of how local space is used is second to none and is a valuable source when considering redesigning a public space.
So, to conclude, we should trust in our community. They are whom we are serving after all!